Complete 2013-14 SEC NCAA Basketball Primer Heading into Conference Play
It's hard not to expect the Southeastern Conference to have a better overall year in 2013-14 after the embarrassment that was the 2012-13 season. With only three NCAA tournament bids, the 14-team league was the laughingstock of the big boys, even with Florida making the Elite Eight.
Surely things will be better this time around, right?
So far, it has been a better showing by the SEC, though CBS Sports' Jerry Palm still has it rated as the country's sixth-best league (up from ninth last season) thanks to the early play of Florida, Missouri and, to a point, Kentucky.
Will the SEC continue to rise up as conference play begins on Tuesday? Check out our primer for what's in store.
Mississippi State, 9-3
Ole Miss, 9-3
Texas A&M, 8-4
South Carolina, 6-6
*Note: Records current through Jan. 1
Biggest Lessons Learned from Nonconference Play
Floridas hould be really good when at full strength
The Gators have battled injuries, suspensions and eligibility issues, yet still managed to put together the league's most impressive nonconference run, with wins over Kansas, Memphis and rival Florida State. They've found a breakout star in Casey Prather, while the return of Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin as well as the addition of Chris Walker make for quite a potent lineup.
Kentucky can't just roll the balls out and win
It's not nearly as tumultuous as last year, but once again the Wildcats are showing that an all-superstar recruit lineup doesn't automatically guarantee success. Kentucky is 1-3 against ranked opponents, though it looked to turn a corner with last week's win over Louisville.
Missouri looks ready to contend
Though the Tigers lost their most marquee nonconference game (to rival Illinois, no less), this looks like a far better team than the squad that struggled once league play began last season. Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson have looked great, so all that stands between Mizzou and contending in the SEC is the ability to win on the road. The Tigers were 2-8 in true road games last season.
Top Storylines to Watch
Can Arkansas win outside of Fayetteville?
Mike Anderson has the Razorbacks playing with the speed and tenacity that his UAB and Missouri teams showed, and as a result, they're scorching the nets to the tune of 85.8 points per game. But Arkansas hasn't played a true road game yet and is 2-2 in neutral-site contests, a very similar trend to 2012-13, when it was 17-1 at Bud Walton Arena and 2-12 everywhere else.
Will Ole Miss rise up again?
The Rebels lived up to their nickname last year thanks to bad boy Marshall Henderson, whose smack-talking came close to matching his stats. Henderson is at it again this season, jacking up more shots than the end of the bench during garbage time. But the key for Ole Miss will be whether Jarvis Summers and Derek Millinghaus can complement Henderson's play to get the team on a run similar to last season.
Does LSU have what it takes to contend?
Ole Miss was the team to rise up from the lower ranks to surprise last season, and many pundits think this year's surprise could be LSU, thanks to the play of Johnny O'Bryant III and freshmen Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin. But so far the Tigers' lone quality win was a neutral-site victory over Butler, so the jury is still out.
Rivalry Games and Can't-Miss Matchups
Florida at Arkansas (Jan. 11)
Florida was No. 2 in the country and 8-0 in the SEC when it went to Fayetteville last February, and the Razorbacks ran the Gators out of the building. Will the same thing happen this year?
Kentucky at Missouri (Feb. 1)
This is Missouri's lone home game during a brutal four-game stretch that sees it visit Arkansas four days before, then head to Florida and Ole Miss afterward.
Florida at Kentucky (Feb. 15)
The first of two meetings between the league's top powers doesn't come until more than halfway through the schedule. By then both squads could be full of momentum and confidence, which will make for great basketball.
Florida at Ole Miss (Feb. 22)
This is the kind of matchup that just screams Marshall Henderson going off, both with his antics and his ability to take over a game if he gets hot.
Kentucky at Florida (March 8)
If the league title is still in doubt come the final game of the regular season, it's likely at least one of these teams will be in the running for the crown.
Freshmen to Watch
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle is by far the most essential of Kentucky's latest crop of freshmen, as shown by his team-leading totals in scoring (18.1 points per game) and an SEC-best 10.6 rebounds. At 6'9" and 250 pounds, he's a matchup nightmare.
Jordan Mickey, LSU
The 6'8" forward is 10th nationally in blocks per game (3.5) but is also contributing on offense (13.5 points per game) and on the boards (8.1).
Bobby Portis, Arkansas
The 6'10" forward is averaging 12.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game despite seeing less than 25 minutes of action each night, part of Arkansas' huge depth advantage.
Top SEC Player of the Year Candidates
Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
The SEC scoring leader at 20 points per game, the 6'5" junior guard has been an instant standout after sitting out a year following his transfer from Tulsa. He's hitting 50 percent of his field-goal attempts, 87 percent of his free throws and also dishing out 4.3 assists per game.
Jordan McRae, Tennessee
The 6'6" senior guard will be the reason the Volunteers make it to the NCAA tournament if that happens. His scoring (18.9 points per game) is up 20 percent from a year ago, and he's also taking better care of the ball and getting teammates more involved.
Casey Prather, Florida
The 6'6" senior forward has stepped up big time during Florida's ever-shifting roster issues, nearly tripling his scoring from a year ago to average 17.8 points per game. He's deadly on the drive, hitting 62 percent of his shots and getting to the line more already this season than in his first three years combined.
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Of all of the Wildcats' talented youngsters, he's the one they can afford to miss the least. Similar to Nerlens Noel a year ago, the 6'9" Randle is the motor and driving force for Kentucky's team.
Predicting SEC Awards
Freshman of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
As mentioned in previous slides, he is as Kentucky will do. It was promising to see the Wildcats rally to beat Louisville when he got hurt, but Randle is still the key to avoiding last season's disappointment, which shows his value.
Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan, Florida
Donovan could have easily written off the first half of this season thanks to all of the roster turmoil he's faced, but that's not his style. Instead, he's guided the Gators to a solid start despite a tough schedule and will now get to enjoy the fruits of that labor with a full-strength lineup.
Player of the Year: Casey Prather, Florida
Prather's emergence during the Gators' nonconference slate could have just been a byproduct of the team's player issues, or it could be a sign this senior has finally come into his own. We're guessing it's the latter.
SEC Favorite and Dark Horse
The Gators were able to weather the storm and now, with players coming back from injury or rejoining the roster, a full-strength unit is going to be tough to beat.
Dark horse: Arkansas
Kentucky and Missouri are going to be Florida's main challengers for the top spot, but Arkansas' distinct home-court advantage and a system that can wreak havoc on opposing teams' stamina could make the Razorbacks a tough out, even on the road.
Who Makes the NCAA Tournament?
Shoo-ins: Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Missouri
The only way someone from this group doesn't make it is if, say, a star player blows out a knee and the rest of the team fails to fill that void thanks to inconsistent play. Sound familiar, Kentucky?
Hopefuls: Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee
Winning on the road is key for each of these teams to be able to move off the perpetual bubble. Only the Volunteers have multiple quality wins (over Xavier and Virginia) to fall back on if something less than 10 league wins are produced.
Long shots: Mississippi State, Texas A&M
Both have talent, but both also have shown the ability to lose badly, as A&M showed by falling at home to North Texas by 20 points this week. For either to have a shot, it's got to be a lot of the former and none of the latter.
Predicting SEC Standings
5. Ole Miss
9. Texas A&M
10. Mississippi State
11. South Carolina